By Elisabeth Monaghan
To those born after the mid-1960s, polio sounds like an “old-time disease,” but anyone over the age of 60 likely knows someone who had polio or at the very least, is familiar with fretful parents who feared their children might contract the disease by drinking from dirty water fountains or swimming in public pools.
Thanks to Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed vaccinations for polio, the disease has been, for the most part, eradicated in the United States. Unfortunately, between 40 and 50 percent of all polio survivors have gone on to develop post-polio syndrome.
Many of these survivors were unaware post-polio syndrome even existed until they began to experience its symptoms. South Dakota native and Wheat Ridge resident Dr. Marny Eulberg is one of the polio survivors who has post-polio syndrome. A Baby Boomer who developed polio when it had reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., Eulberg was not aware post-polio syndrome was a thing.
“I thought, like most polio survivors, you had polio; you had a certain amount of weakness; you got a certain amount of recovery, and you went on that way for the rest of your life,” according to Eulberg.
While there had been reports of post-polio syndrome going back to the 1800s, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the disease was identified. Before, there weren’t enough cases to cause much concern, but as the thousands of those who had polio as children during the epidemics of the 1940s and ‘50s grew older, they began to display similar symptoms.
Growing up Eulberg harbored the idea of going into medicine. Her parents, on the other hand, recognized their daughter’s desired profession would require being on her feet much of the time. Jobs with manual labor or long stints of standing or walking were not exactly ideal for polio survivors. Rather than stomping on Eulberg’s dreams, they introduced her to a lab technician at the local hospital so she could learn about additional careers in the medical field that did not require a great deal of standing or physical labor.
With that, Eulberg pursued an undergraduate degree as a medical technician, but even then she realized she wanted to do more.
“When I began working as a medical tech, the work was interesting, but as labs got more automated, it was like being on an assembly line,” Eulberg explains. The only way Eulberg could advance in her field was to become a supervisor. Although an admirable profession, she did not wish to be a supervisor in a medical lab, so she applied to and was accepted by the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
After graduating from medical school, Eulberg did her residency at Mercy Medical Denver. For a brief period, Eulberg returned to South Dakota to practice medicine. Then in 1980, she moved back to Colorado and joined the Mercy Medical Center, where she also served on the faculty of the Family Medicine Residency program.
Shortly after discovering she had post-polio syndrome, Eulberg became a student of the disease and an advocate for those affected by it. In 1985, Eulberg joined forces with a physical therapist named Ann Hueter to found the Colorado Post-Polio Clinic, which was based out of Mercy Medical Center. When Mercy closed in 1995, the Family Medicine Residency and the Family Medicine Residency Clinics moved to St. Anthony Hospital and then to St. Anthony North Hospital.
In the decades she has practiced medicine, Eulberg has received a number of awards including the 2005 Colorado Academy of the Family Physicians Family Physician of the Year and was honored for this by both houses of the Colorado Legislature. She also was honored by then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and the Denver City Council for her lifetime contributions to the health and welfare of area citizens.
Eulberg’s participation in the community does not stop with her medical practice. In addition to belonging the Wheat Ridge Presbyterian Church, she serves on both the medical advisory committee and the board of directors for Post-Polio Health International. She also is an active member of the Rotary Club and has served in a number of capacities on the Wheat Ridge Rotary board. This month, Eulberg stepped in as chair of Rotary District 5450.
As an active member of the Rotary Club, Eulberg provides unique insights for the Rotary Club and its commitment to eradicating polio. Rotary launched its international PolioPlus initiative in 1985. At that time there were 350,000 cases of polio worldwide. As of 2016, there were only 37 cases in the world, and these were in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Many of those who retire find hobbies to keep them busy, but Eulberg is not among them. Although she retired from her practice in 2016, Eulberg remains involved with the post-polio community. Not only is she a resource to patients with post-polio syndrome, she also is a go-to for anyone looking for information about the disease. Additionally, Eulberg volunteers with the Colorado Post-Polio Traveling Clinic, visiting places like Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and Fort Collins. Post-polio patients, or those who suspect they may have the disease, receive a written evaluation, a muscle test and a list of recommendations to help them preserve their policy of life.
Eulberg lets these patients know they are not alone or forgotten, giving them a sense of hope and understanding. Seeing how she conducts herself provides them with a model of someone who has experienced their frustrations but continues to live a meaningful life, in spite of an “old-time disease” that Eulberg and other champions like her are determined to get rid of, once and for all.
If you would like to learn more about Dr. Eulberg’s work or about post-polio syndrome, visit www.post-polio.org.